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Why was the campaign so lacklustre? For the same reason 'no-one bothered going to Dublin matches this summer'

We take a look at some of the factors that led to such a mundane Áras campaign.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

FRIDAY’S VOTE THAT saw Michael D Higgins re-elected as president of Ireland had the lowest ever turnout in the history of the Irish State.

Just 43.87% of those eligible to vote went to the polls, meaning over 1.7 million stayed away.

This contrasts sharply with the 2.16 million that turned out just a few short months ago for the Eighth Amendment referendum, with 64.13% of the electorate turning out to vote.

The electorate clearly wasn’t galvanised in the same way because it was already a “forgone conclusion”, according to DCU political science professor Eoin O’Malley.

He told TheJournal.ie that this was perhaps the main contributory factor in this campaign and the clear narrative that Higgins would win the election meant that many people didn’t get too invested.

“If you know what the result is going to be, you’re less likely to be interested,” O’Malley said. “It’s like a sports match. No one bothered going to Dublin matches in the summer as they already knew who’d win.”

Political commentator and account director at Carr Communications Johnny Fallon echoed these sentiments and told TheJournal.ie that when people realised there would only be one winner “they lost interest in it”.

Fallon linked this apathy with the approach of the main political parties to the election.

Higgins was supported by the Labour Party, whom he represented for decades, but also had the backing of the two main parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

In the case of Fianna Fáil, this was the second presidential election in which it hadn’t run a contender for the Áras.

Fallon said. “There was some kind of doubt over whether [Higgins] would run, and I don’t think that helped things. 

Once he decided he was, it became the first presidential election where both of those main parties decided to sit it out and not be bothered. I think that set the tone.

Quality of candidates

With neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael opting to run candidates from within their own party, it diminished the potential quality of the race straight away, Fallon said. 

He said: “They’re the ones with the largest reach down into communities. They sent a signal the presidency doesn’t really matter.”

Both parties got behind Higgins’ re-election bid with a number of events but, if they’d been backing their own candidate, this support would have been far greater.

O’Malley said that what the electorate was left with were “five pretty weak candidates against Michael D”.

“Nobody who had a chance would have been interested in challenging him,” he said.

The other candidates were up against it anyway given Higgins’ support, and the route they had to take to be on the ballot may not have helped matters either.

Johnny Fallon said: “When we got into the campaign, we had a series of independents declaring they were running. Their first job was to get a nomination.

That took up so many weeks. By the end of that, they had little or no time to build up momentum heading into the campaign.

And what about Casey?

He was dead last in opinion polls in the run up to the election but defied expectations by earning over 20% of the vote.

He became a focal point of the election after his comments about the Travelling community.

His subsequent good performance has prompted questions over what exactly drove this increase in support in the last couple of weeks of campaigning.

“The Casey phenomenon – I think people are reading too much into it,” according to Eoin O’Malley. “I think it’s more boredom than anger. A mainstream political would be scared to say anything about travellers because they’d be attacked for it… There is anti-Traveller sentiment in Ireland. It’s not uncommon.”

Fallon said that one-fifth of voters opting for Casey doesn’t mean that one-fifth of voters are anti-Traveller or agreed with Casey’s comments.

“It was he was the only candidate looking to be saying something completely different,” he said. “I think that sends a note to people that too much consensus is not a good thing. 

“Political parties need to take stock of this. People need to be seeing a divergence of opinion. They need different options. The centre always depends on people having mild disagreements. When there’s nothing to disagree about, people end up looking the other way.”

What the president actually does

It is also simply the role and function of the president that created this voter apathy for this presidential election, Fallon and O’Malley agreed.

During the campaign, candidates all made their pitch for what they would do as president. But the limits of the role and people’s clear understanding of what can and can’t be done played a role in making this an election that failed to capture the public’s imagination. 

“At the back of all of this is the sense that it didn’t really matter,” Fallon said.

Nothing the president does is actually going to impact people in their daily lives.

On what a president actually does, O’Malley added “they don’t do very much”. Given Higgins’ clear lead, “why would you vote in an election that doesn’t matter?”

“Given that, 44% is a pretty respectable turnout actually,” he added.

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Sean Murray

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